By The Landlord
"I really have a secret satisfaction in being considered rather mad," remarked William Heath Robinson, the illustrator par excellence, who since the early 20th century has inspired numerous other artists, inventors and scientists, not to mention industrialists, in his infinitely imaginative drawings of crazy contraptions and ridiculous contrivances of a mechanical machinery, his name entering the language to describe anything of that nature. For in the intricacies of his work, we can not only see, but virtually hear what is going on – the whirr of wheels, the pffft of steam-pumped pistons, the creak of cranks and cogs, the whoosh of water, the buzz of electricity, the slap of rubber hands, the boing of brushes and belts.
So what this week's subject springs forth, then, is two-fold: first, songs that include any sounds that are inspired by, sample, or mimick those in industry, machinery or any other invention with moving parts. And second, songs with lyrical content about industry or machinery or technology, of course in particular from the Victorian age onwards.
In the distant past, in a former iteration of our ongoing canon of musical fun, there has been the topic of robots and computers, but so many more machines are working out there in music form. In turn your genres may include everything from electronica to steampunk, goth-punk, industrial dance to prog rock, classical to folk to cabaret. If your songs evoke the sound of, or are about machinery or industry, then the switches will almost certainly be flicked on for possible playlisting.
What inspired Heath Robinson? Perhaps it was the helicopter drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci? Or the third book in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, where the hapless hero happens upon the flying island of Laputa where scientists pursue preposterous experiments such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers or softening marble for use in pillows. Or the steam engines of Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont and later James Watt, the combustion engine of Sir Henry Royce, the bridge designs and constructions of Sir John Fowler, Sir Benjamin Baker and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the concept of the Difference Engine of Sir Charles Babbage, not forgetting of course the genius who inspired him - Ada Lovelace.
From mass mechanisation to computerisation, these geniuses changed the world for ever, for better and for worse, creating wealth, inspiring generations, boosting science, but also with industry, casting a shadow over society with exploitation and greed. And alongside all the wonder, as Clive James put it: “It is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are.”
But it also changed our aural landscape forever, sounds never heard before becoming an innate part of the human condition, the roaring of engines, the clanking of metals, the hum of electricity. In turn this has also made its impression in the world of song, with hard edges and a new universe of sound.
To inspire you, let’s look at who, in the artistic world, was inspired by Heath Robinson. The children’s author and illustrator Richard Scarry enthralled me when I was small, and he surely owed much to his predecessor with his work of busy chaos, the machinery of his mind moving parts of my imagination endlessly, and liking such things was no accident:
Did anyone reading this make marble runs from bits of cardboard, or play the Mouse Trap Game? I have fond memories in the 1970s of the crazy work of Wilf Lunn on BBC1’s Vision On, the chuffing beauty of Ivor the Engine, the puffing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the wackiness of Willy Wonka, and then years later, the brilliant breakfast buffoonery and cracking contraptions of Wallace & Gromit:
Machinery madness continues in the online presence of surreal female boffin and robot anarchist Simon Giertz:
But of all visual evocations of machines, for me the most magical of all in the last few years in the Japanese genius of Studio Gibli through Hayao Miyazaki in the form of Howl’s Moving Castle:
As for your actual music selections, just about anything could come up with the above criteria. For example, could go for the upbeat folkiness of Abney Park to the theatricality of Paul Shapera or Steam Powered Giraffe:
Or you could go into far more abstract territory. I used to have a work studio neighbour, who as a graphic designer, decided he could only listen to most understated industrial sounds while working – plopping water, dripping oil, slow lathes, distant drilling, leaving him undistracted by words or any human trace. Perhaps then you might go down the industrial route of mere sound, but if you’re also looking for songs with lyrical content, there’s a whole genre to be dug out of the early 1970s, from the German scene to Genesis P-Orrige, Cabaret Voltaire, or later, Machine of Loving Grace:
Who then is the spirit in the machine taking over the Song Bar’s plumbing? I’m delighted to announced that picking playlists from your song suggestions, and no doubt making everyone’s parts move, this week’s madame de musique is the most definitely vivacious Violet Vivid, who makes yet another no doubt fabulous debut at the bar. Put forward your nominations for time called later on Monday in time for VV’s selections published next Wednesday. Now let’s see what our music factory can produce …
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.